Category: Sven Birkerts

book review – The Gutenberg Elegies

This is a book that, even with a 2006 edition, has been overtaken by events. When Sven Birkerts sat down to write his original draft the individual could still have a degree of choice towards technology and decide to opt-out of a fair proportion of it.

However, as his 2006 postscript admits, by the time this book had been around for a while that situation had largely changed. The pace of technological development was supported by a hunger among most people to take advantage of the benefits it could offer. So emailing rather than letter writing has become the norm, using the web as a research tool something that students are now expected to do as a matter of course.

But crucially in terms of reading there is still a degree of choice about how far the individual goes. If you strip it back to that question, and Birkerts often makes it a much wider debate which can be unhelpful, then the choice seems to be a straight one between electronic reading and sticking with paper.

Unlike email and social networking the pressure on the individual to move to electronic reading is not as great as in other areas and along with Birkerts there are going to be plenty of people, myself included, that are happy sticking to paper.

But the crux of his argument is slightly deeper and what Birkerts is arguing is that in a society where concentration spans are shortening and more and more information is consumed via a screen the art of “deep reading” is being lost. What he refers to as “deep reading” is the ability of the reader to sit in isolation, distraction free and allow themselves to become absorbed in a book to the extent that their dreams entwine with the author’s and they are lost in the worlds conjured up by the written page and their imagination.

Where Birkerts has a point is in highlighting the dangers, he refers a great deal to the soul, of what happens when this ability is lost. But the problem I have with this point of view is the blanket dislike of technology. In many respects technology has improved the experience for the reader. Finding out about authors and making those stepping stone connections between works is now much easier aided by the web.

There is also a sense of balance that needs to be stressed here that Birkerts is not too good at. For instance if I really enjoyed playing football on a PlayStation does that mean that I would stop having the urge or the ability to go and kick a ball around in the garden? Likewise the chances of paperbacks disappearing soon can be overestimated. Electronic book readers have broken through this year but to the extent that you see them on trains and in the hands of your friends there is still a long way to go.

There are valid points here about the society we live in and the impact that a digital culture could be having on the next generation of readers but in a way what this book shows is that the pace of the debate is moving so quickly it is far too early to make judgements.

The Gutenberg Elegies

Since the original book came out a lot has happened and no more than to Birkerts himself as he reveals in this afterword to the 2006 edition.

He has got two children that are playing on consoles and surfing the web and he has been forced to admit that he himself is using the technology and rather likes the speed. But he looks at it in the wider context and points out that society has changed, not just his household.

“We are quickly acquiescing ourselves into a reality unlike anything we’ve known before. We are replacing the so-called real with the virtual, substituting the image for the thing, moving about ever more in the zone of simulations.” Page 236

Reading has been assaulted and no longer happens in the intense solitary way. Non-fiction has threatened fiction and the support for literary journalism has been eroded by the decline in the support of that type of writing.

Things seem to be shallow but it doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone and avoiding the big questions is now normal.

“Turning our back on full sensory business of living, we have installed another – proxy – world between ourselves and that original place. And each new flashing circuit we mint makes the division between worlds more complete, rubbing away what raw declarations we have left.” Page 249

Reading could be the route to salvation and we must all decide as individuals how we want to balance between the new and old to work out what level we say no more and refuse it.

The Gutenberg Elegies

As the end draws near this personal book becomes even more so with him urging readers to take a stand against the digital future.

Chapter 15
Birkerts makes it very personal talking about a battle inside himself.

“What is it that I envision? Not a revolution – this is not a revolutionary scenario. I see instead a steady displacement of old by new, a generational pressure that escalates, its momentum gathering as the members of the old dispensation age and die off.” Page 214

He talks of depth and duration and the difference with an online experience. But this is quite emotional stuff with references to the online world being the devil.

“We have destroyed that duration. We have created invisible elsewheres that are as immediate as our actual surroundings. We have fractured the flow of time, layered it into competing simultaneities. We learn to do five things at once or pay the price. We have plunged ourselves into an environment of invisible signals and operations; we live in a world where it is unthinkable to walk five miles to visit a friend as it was once unthinkable to speak across that distance through a wire.” Page 219

He says the changes over the last 25 years have been quick in terms of the technological advances and have had a massive impact but no one questions if they have been positive. There seems to be a blind acceptance of the benefits of technology.

Birkerts also talks about technology making you lose something but then it seems to become some sort of Luddite’s dream with the telephone, fax, answer phone and email all getting cursed.

Tomorrow I will post a summary of the afterword to the 2006 edition…

The Gutenberg Elegies

Having had a stab at the world of hypertext the last few chapters appear to be discussions based on a handful of works by other authors.

Chapter 13
Using the book Death of Literature as a reference point he points out that the value and respect that used to be given to literature has disappeared.

Literature has suffered over the years in direct competition with the sciences and he asks where are the thinkers in society let alone the authors?

Arguments about Marxism undermined literature then along came TV and gave it a real kick in the teeth. Books and literature have lost their authority and position in the knowledge tree.

Kerman is merely interested in literature in academia and not the general population.

There are also problems with the pressure of time.

“Who among us can generate regularly the stillness and concentration and will to read Henry James, or Joseph Conrad, or James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf as they were meant to be read?” page 191

One slight problem is that it refers a lot to the American reader and as someone from the UK you do tend to start feeling a bit isolated.

“My nightmare scenario is not one of neotroglodytes grunting and wielding clubs, but of efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference. I fear a world become sanitised and superficial, in which people have forgotten the primal terms of existence – the terrors and agons – and in which the existential unknown is banished outside the pulsing circulation system of data.” Page 194

We are approaching a crisis of meaning.

Chapter 14

The book has lost its prestige and threatened by video games and MTV etc but society is bless about isolated individuals as we all rush to get online and live inside a network consciousness.

“Fifty years ago the human environment was still more or less the natural environment. We had central heating and labour-saving devices and high-speed travel, but these were still only partial modifications of the natural given. It is the natural given that is now gone. Now, for better or worse, we move almost entirely within a regulated and mediated environment. Our primary relation to the world has been altered.” Page 205

The Gutenberg Elegies

This book has been dragging on and although the level; of argument is sustained it does feel like being battered by a pub ranter at times and you feel that there has to be a little bit more grey in his outlook and not so much black and white.

Chapter 11
He takes head on the difference between the printed word and the words that appear on screen.

“Extremists – I meet more and more of them – argue that the printed page has been but a temporary habitation for the word. The book, they say, is no longer the axis of our intellectual culture. There is a kind of aggressiveness in their proselytising. The stationary arrangement of language on a page is outmoded. The word, they say, has broken from the corral, is already galloping in its new element, jumping with the speed of electricity from screen to screen.” Page 152

“Disputants, many of them writers, say to me, “Words are still words – on a page, on a screen – what’s the difference?” There is much shrugging of the shoulders. But this will never do. The changes are profound and the differences are consequential. Nearly weightless though it id, the word printed on a page is a thing. The configuration of impulses on a screen is not – it is a manifestation, an indeterminate entity both particle and wave, an ectoplasmic arrival and departure.” Page 154

Computerised words do exist in some way but it is not the same sense of depth as a printed word.

He talks about an erosion of the “domination of the author”.

But he admits it will take a long time for someone like him who reads in a certain way and uses a typewriter to come round to a different reading experience.

Chapter 12
He laments the loss of the combination of literary and intellectual imagination. He challenges the view that just because more books are now written and sold that we are better off. There has been a dumbing down and embarrassment has undermined the literary elite.

Because of the decline in the interest in literature you face a split between the academic elite and the general mass of people that has widened over the past few decades and is being sped up with the emergence of technology.

While technology is seen as the demon that is driving us all into a social sheep-pen where we share exactly the same experiences. You have to suspect that actually he has stumbled on larger issues here that are being filtered through his fairly limited argument.

The Gutenberg Elegies

Chapter 9

Computers can provide the tools but the problem is when it becomes more than that and it becomes the only way that people learn a crutch that has replaced books with a collection of video, soundbites and selected texts.

“The danger should be obvious: The horizon, the limit that gave definition to the parts of the narrative, will disappear. The equation itself will become nonsensical through the accumulation of variables. The context will widen until it becomes, in effect, everything.” Pg 138

The question being asked here is whether or not the user can handle the data.

Chapter 10

Along with his belief in reading being connected to the soul the other phrase that most people connect with Birkerts is ‘deep reading’. Here he sets out exactly what he means by that:

“Reading, because we control it, is adaptable to our needs and rhythms. We are free to indulge our subjective associative impulse; the term I coin for this is deep reading: the slow and meditative possession of a book. We don’t just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity. The printed page becomes a kind of wrought-iron fence we crawl through, returning, once we have wandered, to the very place we started.” Pg 146

He then goes on to talk about audio books and how they change the process of ‘reading’, if that’s what it can still be called. He likes audio books but believes the reader has lost control, their rights, having to sit through a telling and a single interpretation of a text.

More tomorrow…

The Gutenberg Elegies

Chapter 8

He uses an anecdote of the time he went as a book buyer to a 19th century literature professor who was selling off all his books as he went into computing.

The professor is an extreme case of one world replacing another and a case that Birkerts says is not isolated.

But the immediate threat is described as coming from television with the mindshare that grabs being the most pressing threat to reading. Presumably as this is pre-YouTube has Birkerts come across that it would be his own special version of hell – video and computers.

The great thing for Birkerts about tapping into the whole video versus books debate is that you are onto something big. But you are also potentially into something of a diversion. It is largely an educational debate about how children learn.

He warns about a modification in the form of reading:

“Whether all of this sounds dire or merely “different” will depend upon the reader’s own values and priorities. I find these portents of change depressing, but also exhilarating – at least to speculate about. On the one hand, I have a great feeling of loss and a fear about what habitations will exist for self and soul in the future. But there is also a quickening, a sense that important things are on the line.”

The things on the line are all of the things about reading that Birkerts values and he starts to list the developments that could happen as a result of erosion from technology and television.

1. Language erosion as dumbing down and simplification becomes the norm
2. A flattening of historical perspectives: “Once the materials of the past are unhoused from their pages, they will surely mean differently…”
3. The waning of the private self as social collectivisation challenges the individual isolated self

The Gutenberg Elegies

Chapter 6

The impressions and images, the codes and symbols, are remembered from books even if the actual passages of dialogue and some characters slip the memory.

The reading memory is also connected to the experience of reading, with certain books able to conjure up memories of the situation they were read in. That is the result of something solitary and deep.

“The writing process begins in the writer, the life; it branches odd onto paper, into artifice; but the final restless resting place of every written thing is the solitary life of the reader.” Pg 108

Chapter 7

There is a relationship between the reader and the writer that is an important result of immersion in a novel. They are both to a certain extent on the same side and able to share the same experiences.

“When we read we bring the life – ultimately our life – to the words.” Pg 113

The Gutenberg Elegies

Chapter 4

The chapter seems to be concentrating on what he calls the ‘reading state’ the reaction that a reader has to the actual process of reading.

“…it involves a change of state and inner orientation and if we contemplate the reading process in this light we can hardly get away from introducing the world soul (or something very like it) into the conversation”. Pg 80

Crucially he believes that process, the magic of reading starts off when you are a child. It is not said but the implicit implication of that is if a child knows nothing other than technology they will miss out on ever learning to reach the ‘reading state’.

“I would guess that most adults who are now devoted readers began at a young age, and that they formed a good part of their essential selves through interaction with books.” pg 84

Chapter 5

Reading is about formulating the self and that is vital in adolescence in terms of shaping ambition and widening horizons. Post thirty reading offers a different experience but one as important.

“..there is a very special transformation that takes place when we read fiction that is not experienced in non-fiction. This transformation, or catalysing action, can be seen to play a vital part in what we might call, grandly, existential self-formation.”

The Gutenberg Elegies – post III

As Birkerts starts to get back into his argument he uses chapter three to talk about the decline in the big narratives as communities stretched and technology made it possible for people, and a wider bunch at that, to get access to literature.

The point he seems to be making is that reading in its history was not just about words on the page but because of its universality had the ability set the collective debate and as people grew up it was the shared narratives that they inherited.

The point is made that in the past news took much longer to stretch round the globe and when it did arrive there tended to be one definitive account. Reading in a historical sense was therefore something that underlined community and helped shape the horizons of those that were either able to read or have the contents of books told as oral histories.

More soon…